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"Salesmanship Without the Sucker Punch"

From Financial News/The New York Times
on the Web, February 7, 1999

The New York Times on the Web, www.nytimes.com

    By Leslie Kaufman

NEW YORK — Michael Stock, a salesman at Jennifer Leather Furniture in Manhattan, is trying to convince us that an armchair is worth every penny of the $1,799 on its price tag. He caresses the soft hide, describes the exotic oils massaged into its grain and suggests that I recline on its plump cushions. Fiddling nervously with his gold tie, he ramps up his sales pitch every time I prepare to move on.

He has no idea what he is up against.

Jacques Werth
Laura Pedrick for The New York Times

Selling need not be painful for either the buyer or the seller, according to Jacques Werth, left, who built his theories on his sales experience and his observation of sellers. He listened to a BMW salesman in Dresher, Pa.

My companion is Jacques Werth, of Dresher, PA., who, after 40 years in the selling business, reckons that he has gone on calls with 312 top sales representatives in 23 different industries. No mere student of salesmanship, Werth is a self-styled theorist on the subject – and, needless to say, a consultant. With nothing particular in mind to buy, I have asked him to come along to appraise the help as I browse big-ticket items, things priced at $1,000 or more.

Clearly, Stock is not going to rank with the great ones in Werth's eyes. Werth lights on a chair similar to the one that has caught my fancy, but considerably cheaper. "There is $450 more leather in the other chair?" he asks.

"Yep, generally," Stock replies, looking suddenly young.

"Maybe it's more durable," I suggest.

"If you stretch fabric from each of the chairs over a drum and beat them, this one would definitely last longer," Stock says,gesturing to the more expensive item.

Werth raises an eyebrow, but Stock continues. "Pull the corners," he says, "You can really feel the difference in quality there."

I murmur our thanks as we head out the door.

"Call if you have any questions," Stock yells, undeterred.

Out on the sidewalk, Werth shakes his head sorrowfully, as if he had just witnessed an accident that could have been avoided. But his criticisms are not what you might expect. He does not blame Stock for angling hard, but for trying at all.

"From the sight of us, he should have been able to tell there was maybe a 5 percent chance we'd buy," Werth explained. "With a few questions, he could have determined we weren't ready – and then spent his time doing something productive, like paperwork."

Reached later, Stock had a defense for his performance: He thought Werth and I were spies from Jennifer Convertibles, the owner of the store, and rude ones at that. "Normally, I would have been even more up," he said. "I would have gone even more all out."

More, however, is less in Werth's universe. At 62, he has distilled a lifetime's worth of vending wisdom into a philosophy that he calls "High Probability Selling." (That's also the name of his book, published by Abba Publishing.)

His thesis is simple: Sell to people who want what you have. Figure out who those people are by asking them. Ask as many questions as you need to see if they are good prospects. Be radically honest. Do not fudge in order to pique people's interest. If there is no obvious match, cut them loose -- quickly.

It all sounds absurdly obvious, until you consider that the 12 million Americans involved in direct sales are usually told just the opposite – that, with enough skill and persistence, anyone can be persuaded to buy anything. P.T. Barnum, perhaps the most famous salesman of all, summarized this view of human nature: "There is a sucker born every minute."

Werth does not look the part of a rebel against time-honored wisdom. His deep-set blue eyes sink into dark circles; his thinning silver hair is brushed neatly to the side. His speech, which betrays his roots in working-class Queens, never rises above a conversational tone.

Physically, he resembles a reduced-scale version of the barrel-chested actor Brian Dennehy, who, coincidentally, is starring in a 50th-anniversary Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's classic "Death of a Salesman."

But Werth is no Willy Loman. After leaving New York Community College (now New York Technical College) in Brooklyn at age 19, he took a job selling forklifts and worked himself up to the top spot in the company's sales force. Eventually, he made a career of taking over failing businesses. Over the years, he says, he has rescued 10 firms, from an Italian sports-car dealership to a plant that manufactures machines used to make silicon chips.

The thread connecting these varied projects, he said, was re-educating and reinvigorating the sales forces with his no-pressure, to-the-point methodology. Now a millionaire, he works primarily as a consultant helping troubled companies – and as an evangelist, trying to convert others to his system.

At each step along the way, Werth has made time to follow whatever top salesmen and saleswomen he could find as they went about their work.

Whether they knew it or not, he said, the bulk of these successful sellers used similar strategies. They sought out a great deal of information about buyers and built long-term, intimate relationships. As a result, they were able to know their customers'needs and fulfill them. Just as important, they could also discern who had no need for their products.

The best salesman Werth has ever seen, he said, is David Grob, whom he called the sales champion of the semiconductor equipment industry. Werth describes with reverence the day he followed Grob, who worked for him at the time, to Motorola for a first call on a new product manager.

Grob started by asking the new manager questions – where he had come from, what jobs he had held, to whom he would be reporting. When the product manager said that his own boss was about to be replaced, Grob told him that the replacement would be coming from Motorola's Philippines operation.

The product manager was surprised and impressed, and he asked Grob if he knew the man. "Of course," said Grob, who then described the client's boss-to-be in great detail. Later, Werth learned that Grob kept in-depth organizational charts of the company – indeed, that he came close to knowing as much about the power structure at Motorola as the people who worked there did.

Interviewed from his home in Phoenix, Grob, now an independent sales representative, confirmed Werth's interpretation of his work, saying it was important to know the internal chain of command in client companies, from "operator to vice president."

By contrast, Werth argued, most salesmen spend a lot of wasted time looking for an "in" at a company – that is, for anyone who will take an interest in the product. But such people, he said, are usually just looking for an education about what's offered and are seldom ready to buy from the sales representative making the pitch.

As a result, sales agents end up trying to be aggressive, wily and deceptive enough to force a sale on a party not yet ready to do business. Werth pointed to a help-wanted ad in a newspaper seeking"an elbow-throwing, hard-hitting applicant," saying it was typical of the mentality of most sellers' bosses. They think salesare made when someone is trying hard, he said, rather than when someone is offering a desired product.

Certainly, self-help books and trainers emphasize secret tips and clever strategies for making sales. One popular book,"Guerrilla Selling: Unconventional Weapons and Tactics for Increasing Your Sales" (Houghton Mifflin, $13), teaches ways to sneak into organizations – going in the back door carrying doughnuts, for example – to make contacts.

Another best seller, "How to Master the Art of Selling," by Tom Hopkins (Warner Books, $14.99), offers all sorts of tricks for finding sales prospects. The book suggests visiting new businesses and telling the proprietors you want to get acquainted so you can refer customers to them. Of course, you drop off your card and hope they will pass business back your way.

Hopkins also favors linguistic devices – ending statements with phrases like "isn't it?" and "don't we?" – because they are incremental ways to get a prospect to say "yes" to a pitch.

Hopkins is unfamiliar with Werth's approach, but he expressed skepticism that focusing on a narrow field of high-probability customers could be a winning strategy. To become a successful real-estate salesman, Hopkins said, "I couldn't wait on my butt until people came to me; I had to go out and knock on doors." He said his skill was his ability to "create a need for my product through good presentation."

Werth does not deny that persistence or even old-fashioned arm-twisting sometimes works. By his own precise calculus, 16 percent of the top sales agents he has evaluated were able to succeed by being "slick, glib, deceitful con artists."

But Werth thinks that such success comes at a terrible price: The people doing the selling are miserable. Think of the success-obsessed but self-loathing real-estate hustlers in David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," a play that Werth praises for its verisimilitude.

In the instructional seminars he runs, Werth is reminded constantly of how people in sales can be full of self-loathing and doubt. When he asks how they feel when they are making sales, typical responses are "like a supplicant" and "vulnerable." Asked how they feel when they fail to close deals, they say"resentful" or "like a failure."

Such findings of unhappiness have plenty of anecdotal corroboration. "The Force," a 1994 book by David Dorsey (Fawcett Books, $12.50), followed the top copier salesmen for Xerox and found that even those making six-figure incomes had become walking wounded from the stress of making quotas. One top producer took a chain saw to the family Christmas tree; another tossed a frozen turkey down a flight of stairs.

From the point of view of both the seller and the buyer, it would seem that Werth's techniques would make selling a more pleasant experience. In theory, Werth's salesman is just the guy you want to deal with – someone who offers only as much information as you want and only about products in which you are truly interested.

In practice, of course, this approach takes some adjusting to. During our shopping trip, Werth followed me into the luxury ABC Carpet and Home store on lower Broadway. We were immediately approached by Tevfik Askin, an almond-eyed clerk from Turkey. He started amiably enough but very soon seemed to grow bored and uncommunicative.

The conversation went something like this:

Reporter: Do these carpets need to be special-cleaned?

Askin: Depends on the spill.

Reporter: Let's say orange juice; my son dribbles a lot of that.

Askin, shrugging: It depends on the carpet.

Reporter: OK. How about a wool carpet?

Askin: Depends which one; they are all different. Do you have one in mind? If not, you should try the rack.

Then Askin was gone.

Later, he would explain that while he is willing to work with everyone, "some people are like blanks, and you send them to the racks so that they get some idea where to start." After that, he said, he works with the customer – and has sometimes made sales even to people starting with almost no sense of what they wanted.

At the point of contact, however, I was unimpressed. I offered Werth my assessment: "Not very knowledgeable."

"No," he said, contradicting me because he had recognized a high-probability salesman at work. "He knows his stuff, but he knows we're not ready to buy. There is a lot of floor traffic here, and he would rather get a better prospect. He's good."

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